The 1983 blue Volvo was exactly as advertised on the website. Boxy, long, and low to the ground. Staid and responsible. An ideal choice for a young woman worried about safety.
Marla assessed it silently. She noted the metal strip running down each side of the car from front to back. She took in the black rubber bumper, black grill, black window casings, black door handles. People said station wagons were preppy, but she always felt there was something menacing about all that asphalt-colored trim, a dark and gritty undercurrent that cried, “Beware the normal.” This was a car you could carry kids and groceries in, sure. But you could carry other things, too. Or hide things.
Her phone chimed, prompting her to rate her rideshare driver. The little silver Nissan was probably long gone by now, merging onto the freeway back to Los Angeles. In a graveyard town like this, a single stop light and a main drag of church thrift shops, few drivers would come to get her. At this point, it was the car or nothing.
She swiped the notification away.
“You wanted nine hundred for it?” she asked the seller.
He nodded and winked. He was an older man in his seventies, a large belly and oversized eyeglasses. He wore greasy jeans and a sweat-stained Hello Kitty trucker cap. Gary, he said his name was. Gary lived on a one-acre dirt patch on a numbered street in the desert. His home was a tin shack with a corrugated plastic roof. Several other old cars sat on his lot. Rusted tools and shovels lay strewn in the dirt. No wonder he was willing to let the car go.
“It’s a good price,” he said. “She runs. A couple or three scratches and dings, but we all get that with age, right?” He winked again and spit into a grubby paper cup. Inside it, a chunk of something—a tooth?—bobbed at the bottom. His free hand scratched his ass.
It was after three, and the sun cast long shadows across the dirt. Marla had second thoughts about this plan but brushed them off. She wanted the car. Needed it.
She ran her index finger along the passenger side door, just under the strip of metal trim. Halfway down, her finger dipped into a dime-sized dent.
Gary moved closer, halving the distance between them. His smell wafted toward her on a breeze: desert dust, dirty underwear, and cheap, sticky liqueur.
“You like it? We can take her for a spin,” he said. “I’ll knock off fifty if you smile.”
She looked up just long enough to assess his distance.
“Maybe.” She returned her attention to the car door. “We had a Volvo like this when I was a kid. My sister and I made a ding in the side, just about this size.”
“That’ll buff right out.”
She ignored him. “We were at the Harris Teeter—that’s a grocery store—racing our little brother around the parking lot in a shopping cart. The keys were still in the ignition. Our mother went inside for just a minute to get some milk.”
Somewhere not far away, a freight train howled, followed by a chorus of distant dogs. Gary raised his cup and took a gulp. She kept one eye on him as she continued.
“Anyway, we lost control and the cart slammed into the passenger side, corner first. It made a dent, and a piece of the finish flaked off in the shape of a lightning bolt. Kind of like this.”
Marla pried at the cracks in the car’s side panel.
“We thought our mother would kill us. For dinging the car and for being so reckless. Adam was just a baby. He could have fallen out and broken a bone or hit his head. So, we scrambled to cover up our mistake. We put him back in his car seat. We hurried to put the cart back in the corral. We were so distracted by covering our tracks, we didn’t even notice someone getting in the driver’s seat.”
Up in a sycamore, a woodpecker started tapping. The sound bounced off the boulders at the edge of the property, echoing off the tin shack. He had no neighbors. The nearest shop was a mile away.
The man froze, an arm’s length from her.
Marla stared into his eyes. “Have you ever been to Durham, North Carolina, Gary?”
He looked around, blinking. He was an old man now, slow and feeble. The nearest object he could use as a weapon was ten yards away.
Marla’s phone chimed again. This time, it was her sister.
“Is it him?” the text asked.
Marla didn’t answer. She slipped the phone from her right hand to her left and reached deep into her purse.
Kristen Havens’ flash and poetry has appeared in PANK, Necessary Fiction, Bending Genres, Phantom Drift, and Slipstream, among others. She lives and writes in Los Angeles, where she works as a freelance nonfiction book editor. She is currently working on a novella. You can find her on Twitter at @kristenhavens.